Great Famine In Milltown

Marie Oxx, a reader of  my blog Quakers during the Great Famine in Kerry - reminded me also of the Prendergast letters, for another contemporary insight into the Famine in Kerry and the area around Milltown,  The original letters The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850, edited by Shelley Barber (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006) deserve to get greater prominence.

James and Elizabeth Prendergast of Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland, had six children. They dictated letters, including the excerpt below, to a scrivener and posted them to their children who had immigrated to Boston. One postcript, which survives shows  that James was literate though his choice to employ scriveners probably indicate that he would not have had the skill to send the long letters which he regularly posted. The 48 surviving letters, were transcribed and published in The Prendergast Letters: Correspondence from Famine-Era Ireland, 1840-1850, edited by Shelley Barber (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006). Features of the letters are the personal and sometimes urgent tone and the absolute reliance on remittances from America to keep the family going in Ireland. The example below is from November 1846.

Letter 28.      From James Prendergast to his children in Boston M' Cornelius Riordan N° 16 PearlplaceBoston Stateof Massachusetts N.America Prepaid Milltown 20th Novr 1846 My dear Children

On the 11th of August last I wrote in reply to your letter of the 16th July, thanking you for your Remittance, which was a relief, a relief received most timely. Since that time we were most anxiously expecting an answer from ye.  At last our patience was worn out.  And we became really alarmed, not for any disappointment of our own, bu lest any disaster should befall either of you and cause this unusual delay.  We are now old and must of course be near our dissolution and we would descent quietly to the grave if we new that ye were well.

The state of this County is almost beyond description.  Nothing to be seen in all quarters but distress and destitution.  Famine and starvation threatening everywhere uncles God mercifully send some foreign aid.  Last year was a year of abundance and plenty when compared with the present.  This year all the potatoe crop was lost.  The best farmer here is as short of them as the poorer class.  Potatoes are seldom in market and the few, that then come are bought by the rich as a rarity at the rate of from 8d to 12d pr. stone.

Flour rates at 3/3d pr stone and varies from that to 2/8d for flour not much superior to bran.  Oatmeal 3/3d and other foods dear accordingly.  The supply of the country it is dreaded will soon be exhausted unless supples are brough in from abroad.  The grain crop of this country fell very short this year.  The last remittance e sent is out long since and we are considerably in debt.  Therefore if ye can assit us as usual do not delay your usual relief.  The Pawn offices here are so stocked with Goods that 10s could scarcely be raised on the value of five Pounds.

My dear children your Mother joins me to send ye all our blessing as well as if we named ye severally not forgetting Con and I remain affectionately your father,

James Prendergast. These letters are a rich seam of contemporary thinking of families - parents and children -who lived through the devestation and tragedy of death, disease and emigration visited by the Great Famine.   It is not all doom and gloom though, life went on:


  1. Christina McDonnell Christina McDonnell
    April 19, 2017    

    Thanks Kay

    • Kay Caball Kay Caball
      April 19, 2017    

      Christina, thanks – and looking forwrd to seeing you shortly. Kay

  2. Mary Moroney Mary Moroney
    April 19, 2017    

    Thank you for sharing this excerpt from the Prendergast letters. We often romanticize our Irish ancestors’ lives but know that most who had to emigrate from their land were doing so to be able to live. It is heartbreaking to know that Elizabeth Prendergast was separated from her children and her knitting of socks for them was bittersweet.
    I try to imagine what life must have been like for my Kerry ancestors, Liddanes, Murphys, O’Connors, Mcgillicuddys, Longs, Mangans and Kellihers. They are always in my mind and heart.

  3. April 19, 2017    

    Thank you so much for this excerpt and for your wonderful blog. I enjoy reading all of these posts, and continue to learn much from them. I will try to buy this book. I live in America, but have my second cousins (Kellehers) in Cork, so not Kerry. I have my grandmother’s letters from her parents in the early 1900’s and they are very moving, and not unlike the letter you posted. Bridget took the usual route, living in England for at least 2 years, working in a big house to earn her passage to America. Her story is an amazing one, as all of the others are, stories of pain and loss and making do in a new land, finding love and having a family, but regretting every day that she wasn’t in Ireland. I’ll be there this year and next, enjoying the country and family she missed so much.

    • Kay Caball Kay Caball
      April 19, 2017    

      Mary Christine thank you for the nice comments and interesting story of your granmother. Kay

  4. April 19, 2017    

    Thanks for posting that! It gives me some insight on how it must of been back then as my own family (Sullivan) came over from Caherciveen, County Kerry, during that same time for the same reason. I can’t even imagine how hard it must of been on them. Hope to read more stories like these on here.

    • Andrea Estes Andrea Estes
      April 24, 2017    

      Will Sullivan, This is Andrea Estes, just to let you know, I now own the 1875 Residence of Margaret Mary Healy Murphy in South Texas, about 90 miles away is the convent of her order, Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate located in San Antonio, Texas, USA. The residence has been restored to an excellent condition. It is an honor to live on the early historical homestead of the Murphy Family. The Murphy’s had a dynamic impact of the early history of the state of Texas. (1849-1907).

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